A first-of-its-kind conference in Spokane from July 24 to 26 is expected to attract up to 500 parents, teachers, service providers and youth, all focused on the goal of helping gay and lesbian young people make safe and healthy transitions into adulthood.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the conference is a renewed focus on parents of gay youth, said Sandra Williams, executive director of Spokane’s Odyssey Youth Center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning young people and their straight allies. The parent track at the conference is sponsored by the local chapter of PFLAG, or Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and will include presentations by Caitlin Ryan, whose research has shown how family behaviors affect LGBT children’s health, including mental health.
The research, published last winter in the Journal of Pediatrics and reported throughout the world, was led by Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project, a research, intervention and education initiative at San Francisco State University. Ryan is a clinical social worker and an author who has worked in the field for more than 35 years
Williams and Ryan said sometimes parents are left out of the mix when serving LGBT youth because of the concern that parents might reject their children.
However, parental reactions to their children’s sexual orientation are significant to their children’s experience – and parents need help, too, Williams said. She added that Ryan’s research with families across social, economic and racial lines shows the dramatic effect of parents’ acceptance or rejection of their gay children – and provides tools to help them.
“We can now tell parents that there are specific words and actions that help their kids,” Ryan said. “We can give them guidance. We believe families want to help their children, but we also understand that there are faith traditions that have trouble with this. If parents feel homosexuality is wrong, it’s important that as they let their children know that, they also underscore that they love their children.”
Her research identifies 100 specific behaviors that families use to express acceptance and rejection.
It also found that young people who are rejected are at higher risk for depression, substance abuse, suicide and HIV infections. LGBT young people who have higher levels of rejection from their families during adolescence were more than eight times more likely to attempt suicide than those who felt acceptance from their families. (More information is available at http://familyproject.sfsu. edu.)
Ryan will deliver a keynote speech and conduct sessions during the conference, which will take place at Itron in Spokane Valley.
Williams said the young people at Odyssey decided on the topic for the conference, which they wanted to be about establishing healthy relationships with themselves, peers, parents and others. The youth track at the conference will address topics such as developing the self they want to be, how to improve communications, what is learned about intimacy from popular culture and being both gay and spiritual.
Parents will learn about the Bible and homosexuality, the coming out process, bullying in schools and more. And educators will have such sessions as addressing LGBTQ issues in school, establishing a supportive climate and answering student questions.
Williams said professionals from such organizations as the Safe Schools Coalition and others are working together to create the conference, with registration already coming in from many Northwest states and Canadian provinces. Registration for the conference, called the LGBTQA Youth Conference for Hope, costs $10.
“This is a hopeful event,” Ryan said. “It is important that families and youth and providers have hope and to know that there are resources and places to turn.”